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White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
432 pp., $27.95
A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade
Penguin Books, 2009
304 pp., $16.00
"Old Pieties No Longer Sufficed"
Back in the mid-to-late 19th century, the period that these two widely praised volumes explore, books sported modest titles. At mid-century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter and gave it the subtitle, A Romance, which referred not to its protagonists' passions but to its fictional form. In like manner, the words Great Expectations stand alone atop the cover of Charles Dickens' masterpiece, while George Eliot's greatest novel, Middlemarch, has a discreet, understated subtitle, A Study in Provincial Life. And at the century's end, Thomas Hardy finished his novel-writing career with the bleak and blunt Jude the Obscure.
Yet times and tastes have changed on the title front. Simplicity is out, obscurity is in, and the unapologetic earnestness of then has given way to the allusive irony of now. Today, titles tease and subtitles reveal. Without their subtitles, for example, what would we make of Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds and Brenda Wineapple's White Heat? Is Benfey writing about the migratory patterns of this smallest of birds, or is this perhaps a memoir about a poignant season in his life? And what is Wineapple offering us? A biography of Jimmy Cagney, or perhaps a primer on one of his greatest films?
From their titles alone, we could never surmise that Christopher Benfey's interests are in Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade. Nor could we imagine that in White Heat, Brenda Wineapple is setting out to plumb the depths of The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.The titles tease us with an image but leave it to their subtitles to reveal the connections that bind together each book.
For both Benfey and Wineapple, the binding ties are of the kind that literary modernism has long prized. Indeed, one of the central premises underlying these two books was put forward a little less than a century ago by E. M. Forster in Howards End."Only ...